Themes For A Plague

The Remai ponders pandemics past and present

Art by Gregory Beatty

Adrian Stimson: Iini Sookumapi: Guess who’s coming to dinner? Photo: Blaine Campbell

An Apology, A Pill, A Ritual, A Resistance
Remai Modern
Until May 24
[update: Until Aug. 22]

A Remai Modern exhibition is putting coronavirus into historical context through a lens of, of course, art.

An Apology, A Pill, A Ritual, A Resistance — which assembles work by multiple artists to examine life under pandemics past and present — is also the work of a new curatorial team.

Last summer, the Remai welcomed Aileen Burns and Johan Lundh as its new co-directors. The married couple came to Saskatoon from a similar post in New Zealand after stints at galleries in Australia and Northern Ireland (Burns is Canadian, Lundh Swedish). In October, Tarah Hogue joined Remai Modern as its inaugural curator (Indigenous art). Before that, Hogue was the inaugural senior curatorial fellow, Indigenous art at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

For what amounts to their debut exhibition at the Remai, the veteran team of Burns, Lundh and Hogue curated An Apology, A Pill, A Ritual, A Resistance. The show features work by 23 Canadian and International artists, and the curatorial focus is pandemics and related conditions: pain, suffering and healing.

Obviously, it’s timely.

In fact, during a recent Zoom interview with Hogue and Lundh, Lundh said the team was concerned that curating such a show during an actual pandemic might be too depressing. But they forged ahead.

To broaden the exhibition’s scope beyond Covid-19, they included work by artists addressing three earlier pandemics: smallpox, which decimated Indigenous people during European colonization when tens of millions died; the 1918–1919 flu pandemic; and HIV/AIDS, which began in the late 1970s.

“We tried to balance many points of view and not just focus on darkness,” says Lundh. “There are also works that can be healing in their own right [by] reminding us that, like every other pandemic in human history, this will end one day.

“We wanted to respond to the urgencies of the moment, while also reminding ourselves there is beauty in the world and other ways we can understand what’s going on,” he adds.

While the past year has seen a general spirit of “we’re all in this together”, we know from Covid case and fatality counts — and connected tragedies, like spikes in domestic violence and overdose deaths — that the reality is stark. 

That’s something the curators wanted to explore, says Hogue.

“The conversations we had early on were that the pandemic kind of compels us to address the underlying societal and ecological issues that it arose out of, and has obviously exacerbated and intersected with,” she says.

“Thinking of the title, it’s a list of things that all have touch points in work that’s in the exhibition,” Hogue says. “But it’s also a place from which the show expands to look at all these different issues that call for our attention.”

Apology, Pill, Ritual, Resistance

The curators’ four “themes” don’t exist as hard categories that the artworks slot into but they’re referenced in the work in various ways.

Hogue pointed to Adrian Stimson’s installation lini Sookumapii: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? to illustrate the concept of “Apology”.

“It responds to a proposal for an apology by the Canadian artist A.A. Bronson, whose ancestor was a missionary and actually founded the Old Sun Boarding School on the Siska reserve in Alberta where Adrian is from,” says Hogue.

“[Stimson’s] ancestor is the school’s namesake, Old Sun, who was a medicine man, community leader and warrior who resisted Christianization in his lifetime,” says Hogue. “When the school was active, it became notorious for its high mortality rate and terrible living conditions that children endured after being removed from their families and culture, and all the other things we know about residential schools.”

Stimson’s installation features a dining table, which is where he met with community members to consider Bronson’s apology.

“That opens up the idea of healing from the residential school history, and brings the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to a very personal level,” says Hough. “Which is quite different from how we might have encountered it through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other state-driven forms of reconciliation.”

Bronson is the lone surviving member of the Canadian art collective General Idea. His partners, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, both died of AIDS in 1994. General Idea started in 1967, and as HIV/AIDS spread in the 1980s their work examined the disease’s impact on the LGBTQ+ community and criticized homophobic governments that refused to act on the pandemic.

General Idea’s 1991 One Month of AZT is in the exhibition.

 “AZT was the first approved HIV drug,” says Lundh. “It prolonged people’s lives but was quite toxic, so it caused a lot of suffering. AIDS medication has come a long way since then. You can live a relatively normal life, but in the early ’90s [the disease] was basically a death sentence.”

That comes with a qualifier, though. The medications cost money. And in places that can’t afford it, and where education and safeguards are weak, HIV/AIDS is still a deadly pandemic. That’s true, most notoriously, in parts of Africa. But Saskatchewan has long had the highest per capita infection rate among Canadian provinces — with injection drug use and the sex trade the main vectors.

AZT comes in capsule form, so it’s a “Pill”. As for “Ritual”, Hogue touched on that concept by noting how some works in the show address the idea of living with chronic illness and disability.

“I’m thinking particularly of Sharona Franklin’s Comfort Studies, which is a quilt with digital photographs that she’s printed on fabric and stitched together,” says Hogue. “It documents what she calls bio-ritual altars that show syringes that contain antibodies she injects daily to treat her auto-immune disease.

“She talks about this work in terms of radical acceptance and making visible this daily ritual,” adds Hogue.

Which leaves “Resistance”.

As is probably obvious by now, “Resistance” is embodied in pretty much all the works as artists from diverse backgrounds and perspectives push back against current and historic injustices and inequities that have caused so much misery and hardship.

“In every health crisis like this, it’s always the most vulnerable who are the first ones to really suffer,” says Lundh.

“Like the title suggests, this show is an incomplete list — which could be much longer — that tries to grapple with the increasingly complex world around us,” he says.

It’s a world that shows no signs of becoming less complicated anytime soon.